This story was reported in collaboration with our partners at Patch.com.
At a hearing in Sacramento Wednesday morning, a committee of state legislators voted in favor of an audit of the Division of the State Architect, the government office responsible for making sure that schools are built in compliance with safety laws.
A group of state senators and an assemblywoman had called for the audit in response to a disturbing report released last month in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami that killed thousands in Japan.
According to California Watch, the non-profit investigative organization that issued the report, a review of tens of thousands of pages of documents revealed that a major breakdown had occurred in the state regulatory system designed to ensure that California's school buildings remain safe in the event of an earthquake.
At the hearing, the state auditor, Elaine Howle, testified that the first phase of the two-part audit could take up to six months and would require auditors to log more than 2,440 hours. Altogether the audit could cost California taxpayers around $500,000.
The California Watch investigation centered around the Field Act, a state law that requires the government to oversee all school construction projects and certify that these projects meet the state's standards for earthquake safety. The law has been in place since 1933, when a massive earthquake destroyed 70 schools in the Long Beach area and killed two students, a death toll that surely would have been even worse -- far worse -- had the earthquake struck during school hours.
The idea behind the Field Act is simple. In theory, it ensures that a school can't build a new classroom or a gym or install a fire alarm system or take on any other kind of construction project without submitting its plans to a rigorous review by the state architect's office.
In theory, it compels everyone involved in the project -- the architect, the contractors, the state inspectors -- to sign reports swearing that everything was built according to law.
In theory, it prevents schools from letting students occupy buildings containing new construction until the state architect's office has certified the construction as safe.
In practice, however, the architect's office has allowed tens of thousands of students go to schools with projects that haven't been certified. California Watch identified some 20,000 projects across the state that fall into this category. At least 1,100 of them came under scrutiny during the construction process for safety problems that have never been resolved. These problems include weak anchor bolts, insufficiently sturdy concrete and shoddy welding, all of which could contribute to a building collapse in an earthquake.
The California Watch investigation turned up other problems as well. According to the report, the architect’s office "has allowed building inspectors hired by school districts to work on complex and expensive jobs despite complaints of incompetence."
The report faulted the office for prioritizing "caseload management" over safety. As the article notes: "One state architect ordered what was dubbed 'Close-O-Rama' – a mad dash in the 1990s to approve projects as Field Act safe. Even now, the state architect’s office has classified hundreds of projects for 'no apparent or recorded reason' as simply missing paperwork."
The report also draws attention to the shortcomings of a $200 million government fund set aside five years ago for seismic repairs to school buildings. Only two schools have gained access to the fund. According to memos and internal emails uncovered by California Watch, state officials wanted to avoid an inundation of requests for the funding, so they crafted a strict set of application requirements that ruled out eligibility for all but twenty buildings.
Ellen Corbett, the senate majority leader and one of the senators who called for yesterday's audit hearing, said that she was "shocked to find out that there was a memo that restricted schools for the ability to access these funds."
She added that she hoped the audit would provide "some oversight and understanding as to whether the state's architects office are doing their job in the best way that they can."
The state architect's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Over the past two months, reporters from Patch.com have asked school officials across California to account for California Watch's findings, publishing their responses in more than 100 articles across Patch's network of local websites. (Both Patch and The Huffington Post are owned by AOL.)
Officials generally insisted that their buildings were safe and blamed the lack of proper certification on bureaucratic delays and oversight. As the vote at the audit hearing showed, however, questions about the safety of these structures remain.
In one article, Dr. David Hutt, the superintendent of the San Bruno Park School District, said the district was “very confident that the safety of our buildings is in good shape.”
Yet he added that they'd hired structural engineers to check some of the buildings, just in case.